The Writer Behind the Writer’s Life
Psychotherapist Dennis Palumbo gets on the couch.
by Richard Stayton,
from the Dec/Jan 2001 issue of “Written By”
Writers seek out Dennis Palumbo. Extravagantly successful writers. Down-and-out writers. Wanna-bees. All economic levels and ages and genders hajj to his Sherman Oaks office. They come for many reasons–writer’s block, overnight fame and fortune, anonymity, deadline dread–but ultimately they’re seeking the same objective: to release the writer within.
That’s why one of Palumbo’s books is titled Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; $15.95). Partially a collection of his Written By “The Writer’s Life” columns and partially new material, this is not a how-to guidebook offering insider tips on “making it.” It’s a view from the trenches, yes, but its point-of-view is about empowering you. The person who writes. Who must write. No wonder Palumbo concludes his book, “You. And your writing. That’s all there is. That’s all there needs to be. So go. Write.”
Palumbo should know. Before becoming a licensed psychotherapist, he co-wrote the screenplay for My Favorite Year, authored the novel City Wars, and scripted numerous television shows. He talks as well as he writes.
Richard Stayton: Why did you make a career change from writing full-time to primarily being a therapist?
Dennis Palumbo: It mostly came out of my own experience in therapy as a client and enjoying the process. I started volunteering at a psych clinic. I’d always been interested in psychology and philosophy, and I was going through some personal issues of my own. I spent more and more time doing this volunteer work. And I was working on a film for Redford’s company about a mountain-climber. As a result of the research, I ended up climbing mountains and traveling all around the world and living in Nepal for three months. And I really had a little bit of a Razor’s Edge experience where I wanted to change my life. But I still wasn’t clear I wanted to do it. I was taking classes. I was earning credits. This was like 1984, ’85. But still I was writing pilots, rewriting movies, taking meetings.
RS: And selling?
DP: Oh, yes, making a living. One thing about a freelance writer, once you get your price to a certain level, there’s enough room to have a whole other career. And one day I was having lunch with a producer at Le Dome. He was talking about a movie that he wanted me to do, and I kept looking at my watch because I was gonna be late to this psychiatric hospital where I was leading a group of schizophrenics doing psychodrama. After, as I was racing out, I realized I was bored with the meeting and couldn’t wait to get to the hospital. That was my “Road to Damascus” kind of moment where I realized I wanted to change my life and focus on being a therapist.
Also, I was reawakening my interest in prose writing, having less interest in where American movies were going. I’d been alone in a room for 15 years, and I liked the idea of working with other people. And now I have the best of both worlds. My writing’s gone back to being something that I love, like it was when I was in college. My day gig is being a therapist. The icing on the cake is when I write something. If people like it, great; if they don’t, bummer. But there are no meetings. Nobody else touches it. It’s totally mine: the column, articles. I’m writing a novel. I’m halfway through it, and I’m back to a kind of authorship without the filters that I used to have in all those meetings.
RS: What do you mean by filters?
DP: Producers, executives, directors who want rewrites or whatever. But both writing and therapy are using two different parts of myself, one of which will not get used if I’m just doing the other one. I need both. I need the interaction with others that I get from being a therapist. And I need access to my private creative voice that I get from being a writer. My own psychological terrain is interesting to me. And talking with people about what they’re concerned about and how they struggle with it makes me feel part of the human condition in a way that’s very gratifying to me.
RS: When writers come to you, what are usually the reasons?
DP: The number one reason is either procrastination or writer’s block. Invariably, a person’s creative struggles, whether it’s procrastination or fear of rejection or whatever, are so inexorably entwined with their personal life that the work ends up taking a two-pronged effect. We end up doing both. If a person is struggling with writer’s block, and we learn a little about his family of origin and how his relationships are going now, we learn what function the writer’s block is serving in his life. And so I use the therapy to get under those issues, to illuminate them and explore them and then shed light on why they might be blocked as a result of these kinds of issues. That helps writers move away from the meaning they tend to give it, which is, “I’m blocked because I’m not any good. I’m blocked because I don’t have enough willpower. I procrastinate because I’m afraid.” The negative self-talk that accompanies writer’s block and procrastination. What’s so striking about most of the blocks we have is that they tend to have a psychologically protective function. If you experienced enormous pressure as a child to succeed at a high level, your procrastination might be a way your organism protects you from a fear of shameful exposure when you finally put the stuff in the hands of a reader. Meanwhile you’re angry at it. You think it’s an adversary, but that “adversarial” part of you thinks, But I’m watching out for you. And so understanding that conflict helps depathologize your writing struggles. Because every writer struggles with blocks and fears of rejection. I think it only means that you’re a writer. What a lot of people don’t understand is that these struggles don’t say anything about you.
RS: No value judgments allowed.
DP: Right, most of the time we have the painful responses that everyone has. If you’re writing a story, you’re gonna get stuck sometimes. If you submit a piece of material, you’re gonna get rejected. The painful feelings that you get when you get rejected are normal; the meaning you give to that rejection is what needs to be looked at. “If it’s rejected, my dad was right about me all along. If it’s rejected, it means I must not be any good.” And human beings experience things like rejection very personally. There’s no other way to experience them. But we have to challenge the meaning we give to them. And those meanings tend to be developed over our life based on how we were attuned to our experiences of rejection and pain when we were young. And the meanings our family gave to it.
RS: So in therapy you go back with writers to their childhood?
DP: Often. Now, the thing about writers is that they’re so therapized. They’ve been in therapy for years, and they’ll lay out a lot of their family dynamics for me. But as I always say, “Insight’s the booby-prize of therapy.” That means change doesn’t come from insight. You need insight and awareness to understand what’s going on. But change comes from courage, the risk of challenging those meanings everyday. If you’re someone who believes, for example, that if you get angry you’re a bad person, then you could have all the insight in the world as to where that comes from when you were a child. But every day you’re going to have to risk showing a little anger and seeing that people around you don’t fall over dead. And until you challenge that as an adult and go, “Wow, I got angry, and my loved ones still love me. Nobody thinks I’m a killer, and it doesn’t mean I’m a terrible person.” Until you challenge that in the here and now, you’re not gonna change.
RS: Some believe therapy is bad for a writer. What is your answer to that?
DP: The traditional stereotypical view is, “Oh, my neuroses cause my writing, so if I cure my neuroses, I won’t write anymore.” But my experience is: There is no cure. It’s a mistake to think that there is some perfectible you in the future freed of conflict and problems. And if that happens, you won’t write anymore. The conflicts and sensitivities that drive a person to write are with us forever. They’re what make us who we are, and they’re what make us writers. What therapy can do is help us have access to that with fewer roadblocks. Many successful writers have been in therapy and what the therapy has helped them do is stay more on track with their writing. But they’re still writing about the same painful crap they always did; they just get more pages down. It’s a mistake to think the raw materials of my life, which are the source of my writing, will be transformed in some kind of way, that the painful experiences of my life will no longer be experienced by me as painful. Yes, they will. It’s just that you’ll be able to write about them with fewer roadblocks, with less procrastination, with less shame.
RS: The writers get past procrastination and writer’s block. Then do they stay with you or do they move on?
DP: I have patients I’ve seen for five and six years, and some two or three months. Some I’ve developed a therapeutic relationship with, and every time they have a big project, they call me and come in and get support for three or four months while they’re doing that project, and then move on. Traditionally, we work through what the presenting problem is in their work as a writer, and we move on to issues in their life: anxiety, depression, their relationships. The thing about writers and all creative people is their job is so inexorably wound up in who they are and not as easy to separate. A creative person struggles, and the vehicle that they think is the way out is their creative work. It’s so intertwined.
RS: Do writers come to you with basic business problems?
DP: Not for business advice, but they might come to me with, “I’m frozen in the writer’s room. I’m afraid to open my mouth.” A lot of writers come to me needing help dealing with performance anxiety on pitching either in the room with other writers or going to pitch in a network or at a studio. Oftentimes we’ll do role-play. What in that scenario is the danger? Usually there’s some danger of shameful self-exposure. When someone has performance anxiety around pitching, usually shame’s in there somewhere, or high expectations.
RS: And do you play the role of the exec?
DP: Sometimes that’s the way we do it. Sometimes I might ask the person to have a conversation with themselves, play both parts, as to what he’s afraid of. One of the things that usually happens–not always, but usually–is we find out that the writer is projecting one or another of the parent figures onto that executive. Same with agents. It’s so important for writers to realize their agent is not their parent. Hollywood is the worst place in the world to find an approving parent. And people come from all over the country here just for that fact. They want validation. It’s a horrible place to come. For 20 years everybody has made fun of Sally Field for getting her Oscar and saying, “You like me! You really like me!” I thought it was the only truthful statement a creative person has ever made at an awards presentation. It was the absolute naked truth. And that’s the validation. Of course, the response in the business is massive denial. Someone asked Clint Eastwood, “What will you say if you get an Oscar for Unforgiven?” And he said, “Well, I’m not gonna stand up there and go, ‘You like me! You really like me!'” I thought to myself, “Ladies and gentlemen, Denial 101.” Because that’s exactly what he felt. And there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way.
RS: Are there different seasons of problems for writers?
DP: Yes. Staffing season is a really tough time. And the last couple of TV staffing seasons have been brutal, just brutal. It’s been a real affront to more-experienced writers. One of the traditional complaints in my practice is that just when a writer gets really good at what he or she knows how to do, ageism starts to creep in. And it’s very powerful dealing with that. As a mature person myself–I’m going to turn 50 in March–it’s just so shortsighted on the part of the industry. I do a couple things on the ageism problem. Number one, I support and commiserate with them. Number two, I challenge the idea that it’s a defect in themselves. And number three, I try to get them to see that in the long run, only a benign relationship with themselves and their writing talent is the source of any satisfaction they’re going to have. In other words, they do have to keep giving them “you,” until “you” is what they want. You can’t make yourself 10 years younger. You can only reinvent yourself to a certain extent. There may be other places you need to go with your talent, whether it’s play writing or novel writing, but you can’t sabotage your talent by trying to write something that is younger than you are. You have to acknowledge where you are with your age.
RS: Do you have writers coming to you from their 20s? What’s the reverse of ageism?
DP: They’re all terrified. I have a number of showrunners. I have a couple of young writer-directors, like the new hot guys. And they’re terrified. They’re aware of their youth. They cover it in public and in their workplace with a kind of persona that is very confident, very aggressive and assertive, but in the privacy of the consulting room, they’re terrified by their youth, the work that has gone before, the expectation. They know about all the other young wonders. Very few of the young wonders have maintained a 25-year career like Steven Spielberg. Very few people have done that. “What’s gonna happen? I fooled them. I’m fraudulent. This is a hat trick.”
RS: What do you tell them?
DP: It’s not so much what I tell them. It’s how we explore together how they deal with that fear. There’s no magic pill to vanish fear, but there are tools to coexist with our fears. To realize that fears are understandable, that growth and craft is the best way to coexist with those fears, to develop a benign and supportive relationship with the practice of the art. Not to buy into the idea that you have to be a big superstar, but that you’re going to be in this for the long haul. The key to that is to be good at your job and to get better at your craft. And that results from consistency and mining your own personal experience and following your authentic voice, which means sometimes you’ll be in favor and sometimes you’ll be out of favor. So in the long run you can’t know what people are going to think of you. Your job, in a funny kind of way, is to not pay attention to your life.
Copyright 2001, Written By. Reprinted with permission.